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"When can you have it ready?"

Garak had already resolved that should he ever seen to spend time incarcerated again, he would have to make sure to do it under the purview of people who were ... well, if not friends, then at least favorably disposed acquaintances. Not that he had plans, of course, to spend another six months of his life suffering the consequences of a failed sabotage attempt. No, he had made up his mind: only successful sabotage from here on out.

His benevolent Starfleet captors had, he had to admit, allowed him incredible leniency in terms of both food and reading material, and had even permitted him the occasional visitor. What they had not allowed, however, was any tool of his trade. In exchange for their generosity in other areas, Garak had not insulted either Sisko or Odo's intelligence by trying to convince them of the purely harmless nature of a pair of shears, or a handful of pins, or even a single needle. As such, though he'd dreamed up more than a few designs during his captivity, when it came to the mechanics of his act, the tailor was rusty.

"Garak?"

"Apologies, I--" With a sigh, Garak put down the cuff he'd been fussing with for the past minute. "I'll try to have it by next week."

Julian's face fell in that way it so often did when the world did not turn on exactly the axis he thought it should. "But I'm leaving the day after tomorrow!"

Garak frowned. "Leaving?"

"For the conference?"

Was there a conference he'd mentioned? Garak supposed there must have been, when he'd come in with the ill-fitted new uniform in the first place. Strange how much the quiet had seeped into his soul, how hard it was to adjust to a world of light and noise and conversations, a world where people came and went as they pleased and had things to take care of that required other people to listen to them.

"Yes, of course. The conference." Where he was no doubt presenting as some distinguished dignitary of distinction, or whatever they called people of his station. He'd want to look his best, and there was no way he'd so do in this new, ill-fitting set of rags Starfleet had issued him. Honestly, Garak didn't know what the point of being one of the galaxy's foremost superpowers was if everyone had to look like they were dressed in sacks. "I'm sorry, dear doctor, but I simply can't manage it."

Julian shifted on his feet and looked up at Garak hopefully with those big, dark eyes of his. "Can't I ... exploit our friendship to get to the head of your queue?"

That made Garak laugh, and oh, that did feel good. Solitude was excellent for many things, but out-and-out laughter was not among them. "Not only can you, I'd be outright proud of you for doing so. However..." Garak picked up the sleeve again, turning the cuff inside-out as a visual aid. "Do you see the serging there?"

It was very likely Julian did not even know what serging was , nor could his eyes pick it out where the dark fabric folded back against itself, but bless him, he squinted and tried. "...Should I?"

"No. Because it's very tightly done." Garak took the jacket and ran his fingertips along the quilted grey material of the collar. What a damnable tragedy it was, the official Starfleet uniform code. He'd already gone over in his mind a thousand times how little effort it would take to correct the crime of having it obscure the lines of the doctor's lovely neck.

Then again, considering how often other Cardassians found their way onto the station -- and considering the altogether unsavory nature of the ones that tended to do just that -- perhaps it was better not to set off Julian's assets in such an enticing manner. At least, not without letting Julian know that was precisely what was happening, and it would be a cold day in the lava fields before Garak let that slip.

Julian quirked his mouth to one side. "And this is ... bad?"

"Well, for construction, it's rather good, in fact." Giving the jacket a little shake, Garak made sure it was free of pesky wrinkles before settling it on the nearest hanger. "But it does make alterations a more challenging prospect. I'll have to play my cards right, or the whole garment may begin to unravel."

"Ah." Julian exhaled through pursed lips. Garak could see the dilemma's playing out on his face: show up to the gala in a well-fitting but out-of-season frock, or make a splash in a new yet awkward ensemble? Garak wasn't mocking the situation at all -- quite to the contrary, he of all people understood the importance of looking one's best. "Well, I suppose if it can't be done, then it can't be done. Take your time with it. I can pick it up when I get back."

"It shall be waiting." Garak gave his most practiced customer-service smile, complete with a little bow. It was artifice, of course, and everyone who saw it knew. The point was that they couldn't see beneath it.

At least, that was meant to be the point, but as was so often the case, Julian missed it. Though there were no other customers in the shop, Julian dropped his voice past the level of easy eavesdropping. "How are you doing?"

"Glad to be back to normal," Garak said, letting the obvious facade fall and reveal a less obvious one beneath it. He had left normal behind along with Cardassia. This was merely ordinary.

And what was he going to say, anyway? That he still had nightmares about the destruction of the fleet? That he lived on the edge of a panic attack every time he thought of the Changeling's words to him? That he felt sick to his stomach with shame at how his plans to confront her had blown up so spectacularly in his face? Yes, he supposed he could say any number of those things. If he wanted Julian to pity him.

No. He could perhaps stand to be pitied, and he could perhaps stand to be known. But not both.



~*~



There were fewer things more disappointing than a ruined entrance, which was why Garak was frankly crushed when he waltzed through the main infirmary doors, garment box in hand ... and found the place empty. Screens glowed, machines beeped, a little gadget on the console spun in a tireless little circle, but they all did so without oversight.

Garak stood there puzzled for a moment, trying to decide his next move, when a blue-uniformed Starfleet nurse stepped out from behind a curtain. He had the pointy ears and severe eyebrow-grooming choices of a Romulan, which in context meant he was Vulcan. Another unfamiliar face. Six months away from everything, and it seemed as though the station's whole complement had rotated through. "May I help you?" he asked Garak.

"I was looking for Dr. Bashir." Garak glanced around, as though the good doctor might simply be managing some camouflage among the instruments. "He's usually on duty now. Is he not back from the conference yet?"

"Dr. Bashir returned from his conference on Meezan IV at 0230 hours yesterday," the nurse told Garak with all the emotion of a computer printout. "His duty schedule has been adjusted appropriately."

Of course, that made perfect sense. If the transport had arrived in the middle of the night, surely it would have disrupted Julian's sleep schedule and thrown him off-kilter. No wonder he hadn't dropped by Garak's shop since he'd returned. Or wandered by the usual spots on the Promenade during prime lunching hours. Or messaged him in any way whatsoever to let him know he was back on the station. Not that he was obligated, of course. It might simply have been nice.

The nurse took a step closer, eyeing him with as much curiosity as Vulcans ever showed. "You are Mr. Garak. The tailor."

"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Ensign..."

"Sulik." He looked pointedly from the box beneath Garak's arm to Garak himself again. "If you have a delivery for Dr. Bashir, I will see that he receives it."

It was a perfectly logical deduction to make from the available evidence, of course: one of the ship's merchants, looking for the station's chief medical officer in his place of work, carrying a parcel tied with a simple ribbon. But being confronted with said conclusion left Garak with the altogether unpleasant sensation that he'd somehow been found out. Been found out doing what, though? Oh, what a nefarious crime, to deliver a man a uniform jacket he'd had tailored! Yes, Garak was indeed the scoundrel here!

Garak sighed internally at his own ridiculousness and handed over the box to Sulik. "Would you be so kind?"

Sulik took it from Garak with a single nod of acknowledgment, then turned and started back toward the section he'd emerged from earlier, as though the encounter had been nothing but a momentary distraction in a day of otherwise productive accomplishments, and the sooner forgotten, the better.

"Pardon," Garak said, before his good sense could tell him there was nothing more to be gained from most conversations with Vulcans, to say nothing of continuing this particular one. Sulik turned back, staring at Garak with that same implacable expression. Garak supposed he had to respect that, one mask-wearer to another. "Do you know when he might be scheduled on again?"

"Dr. Bashir is very busy," Sulik replied. "I do not know his precise schedule."

And it was ridiculous of Garak to have expected him to, honestly. Of course Julian wouldn't have every detail of his day even available to those under him, much less demand they commit his comings and goings to memory. He was a busy man even without a war on. He likely had places to be the rest of the staff wasn't even allowed to know about. Just because some days it seemed as though Garak's entire life revolved around the happiness and lunch plans of one Dr. Bashir didn't mean everyone else's had to.

Garak smiled as though a hot coal of embarrassment weren't burning in his stomach. "Of course. I'll catch him at another time."

Sulik gave no indication that he'd heard, and Garak supposed a reply wasn't precisely necessary anyway, so after a moment of awkward silent staring at one another, Garak simply left. He knew Julian thought it rude when people parted from one another without the maximum necessary pleasantries exchanged between them, but most races weren't like that, and especially not Vulcans. When a conversation was over, it was over.

And what was Garak upset about, anyway? Oh, he knew, even if he felt foolish about it: He'd wanted to see the smile on Julian's face as he'd put on the much better-fitting jacket, to fuss over him and hear every nice word he said about what care and effort Garak must have put into the alterations. Julian wasn't vain, necessarily, but he was a lovely man who enjoyed looking his best, such that he puffed up not unlike a mating bird every time someone indulged his moments of pride in his appearance. Getting to see those moments was a rare treat indeed.

Oh well. There would be other garments, and other moments, and other times they would spend together. It was no use getting fussy over missing one.

There was no one waiting for him at his closed shop when he returned to it, no one tut-tutting his temerity to close mid-day. Perhaps his clientele on the station had begun to respect his need to take a lunch break. ...Or, more likely, they'd simply all forgotten his shop had existed. It had been drearily quiet in there since his return, after all. Perhaps he needed to do something to attract some attention, something along the lines of a grand re-opening. If it hadn't seemed a bit crass to do such a thing in the midst of a bloody conflict, he would have begun planning immediately. His fellow Cardassians would never have begrudged him such a move, but he was pandering now to a group with somewhat different sensibilities.

Ah, well. If there was one thing working in the world of fashion had taught him, it was that taste was perhaps the most variable commodity in the universe. Speaking of which, he took his next project off the rack, a skirt with the most atrocious piped pleats. At least in this case, he was not being paid for his opinion.

"Computer," he said, feeling foolish about his inquiry, though not foolish enough to stop, "where is Dr. Bashir at the moment?"

"Dr. Bashir is in the infirmary," answered the smooth, automated voice.

Garak found himself clutching hard the roll of bias tape in his hand. Surely there were explanations. There was the chance he'd come on duty in the last ten minutes, showing up in the time between Garak's departure and his request. There was the possibility that he'd been there all along, tucked away with his research in some corner of the infirmary not often explored, such that the ensign had not noticed his presence.

There was also the chance Sulik had lied to him. Vulcans prided themselves on their truthfulness -- which no doubt went double for those enrolled in the grand and noble ranks of Starfleet -- but that wasn't the same as disclosing everything. Garak of all people knew how easy it was to omit strategically. He played the conversation over in his mind, trying his best to recall what, specifically, had been asked and answered. No, Sulik had never out-and-out told him that Julian wasn't in the infirmary. While the implication had been clear, it still had never been enough to constitute an actual lie.

That, of course, was ridiculous. Why would Sulik have cause to mislead him about Julian's location? As far as he knew, they bore no ill will toward one another; Garak had never even seen the man before. Sulik might have done so in the course of following orders, but who would have given him such an order? Rubbish. Garak dismissed the idea as ridiculous at best, paranoid at worst, and inaccurate either way.

And yet he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that, for some reason yet unrealized, Julian Bashir was avoiding him.



~*~



As luck -- or perhaps irony -- would have it, Garak had finally put the matter all but entirely out of his mind when the turbolift doors slid open, revealing Julian standing there. "Doctor!" Garak said. The whole event took him by such surprise, he broke into a genuine smile. He stood back and gave Julian an appraising look. "And might I say you look quite handsome in such a well-tailored garment."

Julian stepped out of the turbolift -- and then kept right on walking along the path that would take him most directly to the infirmary. "I'm a bit busy, Garak," he said, taking up a brisk pace. Curse him, he wasn't much taller than Garak himself, but it seemed sometimes ninety percent of Julian's height was in his legs.

"Yes, I heard, and congratulations to the Major and the O'Briens." Garak shuffled along behind him, trying to keep pace. "A healthy baby human! Have they named it already?"

"Him, and yes, Kirayoshi." Julian was far enough ahead of him now that Garak could only see the side of his face when he spoke, which gave away little of his expressions. "I believe they're all up for taking visitors now, if you'd care to see them in some combination."

"Perhaps later." There were few things Garak dealt worse with than infants, one of many reasons he'd never looked into creating any of his own, and he supposed that if Major Kira were asked to make a list of all the beings on the station she'd love to have drop by for a visit, his name would have been somewhere down at the bottom, just above those of the voles living in the circuitry. "And did I see that Odo's--"

"Garak." Julian turned on his heel just before the infirmary doors, fixing Garak with pointed gaze. He pressed his lips together, took a small breath, and exhaled pointedly through his nose. "I am very tired. As you so clearly have been informed, various happenings have hade me running about the station for the past ... you know, I no longer know how many hours I've been up. And I have someone in the infirmary waiting for me. Is there something you wanted?"

It took every well-practiced voluntary muscle in Garak's body to keep him from looking as though he'd been struck across the face. They had both grown so skilled at the game between them, switching leads in the two-step dance of annoyance and indulgence. Garak would pester Julian about his naivete and atrocious taste in fiction, while Julian would roll his eyes, and Julian would nag Garak about taking better care of himself and being a better person and other pointless idealistic fantasies, while Garak would roll his eyes. For Julian to cut that playfulness straight to its core, even exhausted as he seemed, was ... well, Garak didn't want to admit what it was. Not even to himself.

Garak found his cover only a fraction of a second later. "I was wondering when you might be free for lunch again," he said, the corners of his mouth propped up by sheer force of will.

"It may be a while," Julian said, without even the barest hint of regret in his tone. "I'll let you know."

"Of course," Garak said, but Julian didn't even wait for a reply. As soon as he was done speaking, Julian turned on his heel and hurried off into the infirmary, off to whatever urgent appointment he had that was clearly more important than talking to Garak.

Garak's first instinct was to walk into Quark's, rent out a holosuite, and have imaginary opponent punch him until he felt better. Old habits died very hard. But without the implant to provide the neurotransmitters to counter the pain, the exercise would accomplish little more than beating him bloody, and then someone would surely insist that he visit the infirmary about it, and then what would he say? I'm sorry, dear doctor, but it was the only way I could think of to see you?

Well, at least he'd made himself laugh.

There were, of course, less violent applications for the holosuites, and as long as his social calendar remained clear, he saw no reason not to indulge. After all, if he was going to feel petulant and teenaged about things, he might as well go all the way. At the bar, he flagged Quark down and tried to keep a pleasant air. "Might I trouble you for the use of your Cardassian sauna program?" he asked.

Quark shook his head. "Nope," he said, wiping down a glass with a rag that frankly must have made the thing dirtier.

"Does that..." Garak chewed on the linguistic complexities of that one for a second. "Do you mean, no, it wouldn't be any trouble, or no, I can't use it?"

"Kind of both, actually." Quark nodded in the general direction of his establishment's higher floors. "You can't run it because it's already running. Ziyal's already up there in suite two, baking on a rock or whatever it is you reptiles do for fun. You can knock and see if she'll let you join in." Quark wiggled his eyebrows in a way that was probably meant to be salacious, but mostly just made Garak wonder how the Ferengi managed to reproduce.

Had it been anyone else -- and he did mean literally anyone, including individuals both likely and unlikely to ever step foot on the station -- or had she been running any other simulation, Garak would almost certainly have excused himself and gone to be miserable somewhere privately. But the twinned appeals of the heat and about the only other Cardassian who could stand being around him proved as irresistible as a black hole to him. He teetered on its edge for only a moment before letting the mass of the situation drag his whole self-pitying carcass right into it.

Of course she answered when he pressed the buzzer, and not even with a polite inquiry first; without even knowing who stood on the other side, she invited her guest in. It was a wonder she'd managed to survive so long. Then again, Garak thought, she had other natural advantages he didn't, such as having an important father everyone knew about, and not having pissed off entire star systems.

Her eyes brightened when she saw him enter. "Garak!" she chirped, craning her head back acrobatically while keeping her back to the rock platform.

Garak opened his mouth to give her some convoluted excuse for his presence, to contextualize his arrival as part of some grander scheme, but he stopped before the first word of the explanation could pass his lips. Ziyal didn't care about machinations like that. Ziyal was just happy he was here. "Might I join you, dear one?" he asked, already making his way over to one of the other rocks. He knew already what her answer would be.

"Of course." Ziyal rolled on her side to watch him.

He considered the situation for a moment, then removed his jacket, letting the stones' heat itself radiate against his bare arms and shoulders without any intermediate layer. He could already feel the tension start to bake away, burning the station's constant chill from his bones. "I don't mean to intrude."

"You're not." Ziyal gave him a bright smile, the foolish smile of an innocent child unaware that the snake it played with was venomous. Then again, Garak supposed all creatures lived at least somewhat in a universe of their own perceptions. She had chosen to live in a world of good intentions, the same way he had chosen to live in the world of bad ones. For better or for worse, the borders of those worlds met here. "You're always welcome to join me. I love having company."

"You are, as always, too kind," Garak said, ruffling her hair paternally. She laughed and smoothed it back into place as he got settled on the other side of the heat source. As good as the air alone felt, the superheated stone was divine. He pressed his cheek to it, exhaling hard as it near-scalded his bare skin.

The heat the holodeck generated wasn't the same as the heat from a real sauna. This was a polite elevation of the temperature past the point of most races' tolerances, but it still could not escape existing in the humid, recycled, trapped air of the station. A real planetside sauna burned away all moisture until the air itself felt brittle enough to shatter. Health advisories demanded no one stay in a real sauna for long, particularly the very young and the very old, lest scales begin to crack and lungs begin to scald. This facsimile had that going for it, at least, that Garak could fall asleep here, should he choose, and wake up merely a bit toastier than he'd been before.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw that Ziyal was staring at him, looking him up and down with her wide, curious eyes. A knowing smile curled her pretty lips. "Boy trouble?" she asked sweetly.

"Don't you start." Garak huffed and rolled on his back, folding his hands atop his chest and resolving to recant everything nice he'd thought about her over the last several minutes, all the while ignoring the musical sound of her giggle.



~*~



He set about his investigation feeling rather foolish; to begin with, he had no idea what evidence he expected to find, nor what he expected that evidence to show. He scanned the proceedings of the conference, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. So far as he could tell, all of the sessions had gone off as planned, minus one or two minor cancellations. The good Dr. Bashir had given a plenary address that had by all accounts been well-attended and -received, then had come straight back to the station. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all, except that somewhere in the intervening period, Julian had decided he'd wanted nothing to do with Garak at all.

To be fair, Julian was busy. Busier than usual, though? Garak supposed it was hard for him to judge. Julian had certainly been busy in the past, though, and had always carved out time for his lunch dates with Garak -- or, if he'd been truly unable to tear himself away, had always been apologetic and promised to make up the time later. More than that, he'd always been sad about it, or at least in some way demonstrably regretful that the obligations of his position kept him away.

Garak's conviction hadn't even managed to drive such a wedge between them. Julian had made regular appearances at the door to Garak's cell, often bringing meals with him and threatening Odo, when the constable huffed and grumbled about such nonstandard leniencies, that he would declare the visits medically indicated if necessary. No one had been forcing Julian to do such a thing, and Garak surely would not have blamed him if he hadn't bothered.

This was different. Julian gave no apologies, made no noises about future entertainments when things quieted down. He did not so much as slow his pace when he walked by the entrance to Garak's shop; he never even turned his head to see if Garak might be inside, to give a smile and a wave as he hurried on by to whatever business needed his attention. He had not even once said thank-you for the work on his jacket.

Had Julian perhaps found some new and available lady to woo, some Bajoran for whom a partner's Cardassian friend might be a dealbreaker? It seemed unkind in the extreme to assume Julian would throw him over for some new flame, but Garak was running out of other scenarios to propose.

"I don't think so?" Dax said, rubbing the weave of a scarf between her fingertips. She wandered into his shop every so often on her own, unrelated to some larger holodeck adventure, to browse through his wares and run her hands over the brightly colored materials. She never purchased anything, and Garak never much minded. He suspected she found handling the various textures as soothing as he did. "That is, he hasn't mentioned anything to me. And I haven't even heard him talk about romance since he and Leeta broke up."

That theory about potential Bajoran romance fell flat almost immediately. For starters, Garak and Leeta had spent time enough in one another's presence, and while Garak wouldn't consider them friends , they were certainly friend ly . Besides, she and Julian had been such a disastrous mismatch for one another, Garak was frankly shocked their relationship had lasted as long as it had. "You're probably right," he conceded, biting a thread until it snapped for a bit of visceral satisfaction. "I was simply wondering what had been taking up so much of his time lately."

"Well, he is busy. Lots of patients, lots of research, lots of..." Dax shrugged and gestured in a way Garak supposed was meant to indicate the state of the entire quadrant at the moment. She had a point. "He's probably stumbled on some some new horrible space virus he wants to cure. You know how he gets."

For a time, that did indeed seem like the most plausible explanation -- that Julian had found himself with such a medical conundrum on his hands that he'd been hard-pressed to pull himself away from his instruments. Garak even held to it until the third time he'd shown up to the infirmary, ready to drag Julian out by his ear and force him to eat something, only to find that Julian wasn't there. Dr. Bashir must have just stepped out, the staff always told him, as they poked their heads into the empty laboratory chambers to confirm that he was indeed nowhere to be found.

"He's busy," was Chief O'Brien's verdict, delivered as he picked up what he had declared was a period-appropriate jacket, though Garak couldn't imagine how there ever could have been a period in Earth history when someone had wanted that much animal fur directly around their neck. "That's why I thought I'd get this mended now, while there's not much use for it."

This jacket was for airplane flying, the Chief had explained, though Garak confessed he didn't much see the connection. Perhaps human airplanes flew differently from Cardassian ones. "Since he returned from Meezan IV, you mean?" Garak prodded, trying to see if O'Brien had noticed a similar change.

"Since last year, more like it." The Chief examined the patch of leather Garak had mended, giving it an appraising nod. Garak hoped he would appreciate exactly how much effort had gone into removing the scorch marks, and knew he probably wouldn't. "Though what with Captain Sisko having those visions, I know he's been keeping a close eye on that. You know, just in case it happens again."

True, Julian had been fascinated with the nature of Sisko's multiple prophetic encounters, proposing over tea a number of neurophysiological explanations for the phenomena, none of which Garak could have sworn he wholly understood. Garak supposed O'Brien had been referring in particular to the B'hala discovery a few months previous, though, which had occurred prior to Julian's leaving for the conference. Indeed, if such symptoms had begun manifesting again, then it made sense that Julian might be staying close to the station's command centers while trying not to broadcast how he was doing exactly that.

"Why?" Major Kira's eternally suspicious nature was, in Garak's estimation, one of her finer qualities. She took back the pile of maternity uniforms he'd taken in. He felt the cut and layers of this new intermediate style suited her frame much better than the strange, clingy things the other Bajorans wore, but he respected that Bajoran and Cardassian aesthetics had differing opinions about such things.

Garak shrugged, as though the subject had simply popped into his head unbidden. "Merely making conversation," he said with an unassuming smile. He often found her outright hostility to him comforting -- and indeed almost enticing, had he not known better. He wondered how many Cardassians during the Occupation had mistakenly interpreted Bajoran hostility as interest, and how many of those had lived to regret it.

Holding her newly tailored clothes to her chest, Kira shrugged. "Look, you spend more time with him than any of us do," she said. It was not a judgment of any sort; she was simply stating facts as she saw them. He had always admired incredible directness, perhaps even more so for how foreign of an impulse it was to him. "If I wanted to know what he'd been up to recently? I'd come ask you."

That was the rub of it, wasn't it? This wasn't information Garak should have had to track down. This was information Garak should have been the source of. Now he had nothing. He was his own best lead, and he had become his own dead end.



~*~



The decision to confront Julian was not premeditated, in part because all of Garak's more calculated attempts at locating the good doctor had won him nothing for his troubles but silence and more questions. However, when at last he walked past the infirmary and by sheer chance saw Julian there, actually saw him standing in the main bay, talking to Worf, Garak changed direction without a moment's thought and headed right in. "Doctor!" he exclaimed, his grin broadening.

Worf's perpetual scowl deepened at the sight of him, and Julian's face ... well, it was hard to say what Julian's face did. There was a smile of greeting there, but with a delay, as though Julian had needed a moment to decide what his reaction should be.

"I do hope I'm not intruding," Garak continued, when he realized no further responses were forthcoming. He clasped his hands in front of his chest and looked at Worf. "Might I steal him from you for just a moment?"

"Our business here is concluded," Worf said with a sharp nod. He looked at Julian. "I shall have the technicians transfer the files from the Rotarran as soon as they are available. Will you need anything else?"

"No, I..." Julian let out a little sigh, then returned Worf's nod somewhat more gently. "I suppose that will be all."

"Very well." Without further conversation -- and with only a sharp glare to Garak, presumably to let Garak know what Worf still thought of him -- Worf walked out the infirmary doors. Indeed, 'walked' seemed to mild a word for the way Worf moved, even in his most genial moments. He was the most domesticated Klingon that Garak had ever met, but that was still a low and feral bar indeed.

Other staff and patients bustled about the infirmary around them, none of them paying any particular heed to Garak's visit. Indeed, why should they? Once, he'd been such a familiar sight that whatever nurses and technicians lurked about had greeted him just by pointing him in Julian's direction. That now seemed like a lifetime ago.

Julian looked at Garak, his expression kind but already distant. "What can I help you with, Garak? I'm really quite--"

"Busy, I know. Believe me, everyone knows." Garak found himself wishing he had in fact planned this moment, because spontaneity seemed suddenly to have failed him. "I simply wanted to ask: Have I done something to offend you?"

"To offend me?" Julian echoed, his eyebrows lifting with surprise. "Why would you say that?"

Why indeed? Oh, if he'd felt foolish before, Garak felt downright knuckleheaded now. "It seemed to me that you might perhaps ... be trying to avoid me? Ridiculous, I know, I told myself. And yet, I couldn't shake the feeling. So I thought, the best way is forward. If I've done something I didn't intend, I can apologize, and if I'm making this all up, then I can resign myself to the perils of an overactive imagination."

The tiny part of Garak that was still an optimist, the sliver of that personality he hadn't yet managed to kill, told him that it was not only possible, it was probable Julian would now laugh, pat Garak on the shoulder, and tell him he was indeed being ridiculous, and that would be the end of that. It would even be downright appropriate, considering that he blamed Julian entirely for the fact that even a spark of such an impulse had not burned out long ago. In fact, by now there were few good parts left of himself that he did not somehow attribute to Julian's constant, steady, and occasionally irritating influence. He was not and would never be a good man, but he was a better man than he once had been, and by now he knew why.

Which was why it felt all the more crushing when Julian's smile settled into a more serious expression. "Garak," Julian said, his voice just soft enough that no one nearby could have overheard, "you have to know I'm not interested."

The air suddenly became very difficult to breathe.

"And I'm sure some people might even be flattered, but I--" Julian shrugged as he continued to twist the blade he'd lodged in Garak's gut. "Well, you can't have thought ever, not really, that I'd reciprocate."

The smile frozen on Garak's face was beginning to ache. He couldn't tell if he'd forgotten how to blink or if he'd started blinking too much. "My dear doctor, I'm certain I miss your meaning," he lied, like he always lied. Lies were even easier than breathing.

"I think you do," Julian said flatly -- and that was the worst part about it, how flat it all was. Julian Bashir could get excited about finding a new species of fungus. He had opinions on tea that bordered on the fanatical. He would watch a springball match where he knew neither player for the enjoyment of cheering them both on. He was so excitable all Garak had to do was disagree with him about a line of literature, and he'd launch into a passionate defense of his position in the middle of the replimat. It was one of the most reliable reactions in the universe, applying stimulus to Julian and watching him explode in a dazzling display of intellect and fire.

And to break Garak's heart, he didn't need so much as to raise his voice.

"I--" Garak swallowed hard, letting his expression revert something he knew read as neutrally pleasant. "I'm positive you've quite read this all wrong."

"Garak," Julian said again. The word dripped with undisguised pity. "This fantasy of yours, this ... whatever you're playing at between us? You need to know, in no uncertain terms: It will never happen."

"Doctor," Garak said, pulling himself together again as the solid, stable center of the universe. Did he say that Julian had broken his heart? Impossible. One needed a heart first for it to break. A hollow man didn't even bleed when stabbed. At worst, he deflated. "I would never presume such a thing from you." And that, at least, had the benefit of being true. "I value your friendship, and if cultural differences have led you to presume otherwise, then I do apologize."

"Right then," Julian said, pleasant again as though someone had flipped a switch. "Do you think Ziyal would care to join us for lunch sometime? I hear that you and she have gotten closer. Perhaps she might be a more appropriate target for your affections."

Garak could have laughed aloud. Julian must indeed have wanted to be rid of Garak's attentions, if he'd begun to consider Ziyal an acceptable diversion. Garak supposed the idea of his having a romantic relationship with a literal child ceased to horrify Julian when it got Garak off Julian's proverbial back. What a remarkable change of heart. He felt like throwing up.

"I'll ask her," Garak said. The words sounded very far away.

Julian shot Garak a chipper smile and, perhaps most horribly, patted Garak condescendingly on his shoulder before turning and walking off without further comment. Garak stood there in the middle of the infirmary's main bay for another minute before realizing just how out of place he was. Keeping his posture rigid and his breathing steady, he walked out.

Instead of returning to his quarters, where he'd been headed in the first place, Garak walked into a turbolift and gave it the address for as close to the station's main reactor as it would take him. Once there, he glanced around to make certain that no engineering crews were running around, then headed through a door he absolutely should not have been able to open. In fact, he was half-surprised himself that Chief O'Brien hadn't managed to wipe all his access codes from the system. Perhaps he hadn't been thorough enough, or perhaps he'd just been forced to admit the benefit of having someone around who could sneak in through a back door from time to time.

The access tunnels here were blocked off for a pair of reasons: one, they allowed access to very sensitive parts of the station's workings, and two, they opened onto an environment most races would find intolerable over sustained exposure. But Garak had no interest in harming the station in any way, and he had different sensitivities than did most others. Inside, he was overtaken by a wave of sound. The hum of the reactor core was so heavy he could feel his internal organs throb with its every pulse, like a great, slow heart trying to beat for them all.

He sat down in a small, hexagonal nook and crossed his legs beneath him, then leaned forward and concentrated on matching his breathing to the incessant pounding of the reactor. He could last down here at least an hour before radiation started to accumulate and do more damage to him than he could cure with his own first-aid equipment. As a boy, Tain had locked him in dark rooms or sent him out into barren landscapes and told him not to return until an exact number of minutes had passed. Too short or too long of an interval, and he'd been sent back to try it again. He had to trust that his training was still good.

He would ask Ziyal to lunch with them. She would come, and the three of them would sit there, and it would be like it had always been. It would return to how it had always been. He would have to make it like it had always been. If only it didn't all feel so much like standing over a body with a knife buried in its chest, hoping that if he drew out the blade, the damage might be undone.



~*~



Physically, Garak had never felt worse in his entire life: not during his Obsidian Order training, not during the dozen or so times he'd been tortured for information, not being beaten on his way out into exile, not even sweating out the end of the implant addiction that had nearly killed him. Mentally, he was hardly doing any better. He had no idea how much longer his limbs were going to keep responding to him, and he knew that as soon as they didn't, they were all as good as dead. His entire body felt as though as great stones were being piled upon him. He wasn't too proud to admit, if only to himself, that if his own survival had been the only thing on the line, promises to Tain or no, he might have given up by now.

Julian -- Julian, really Julian this time -- held a damp cloth across Garak's forehead and eyes. "Your pulse is racing," he said, pressing his fingertips to the vein at the corner of Garak's jaw.

"I'll be fine," Garak muttered.

"Shut up." Julian exhaled sharply. "I am literally the only other person awake in this room at the moment, so you can take your bravado and stuff it."

Weak as he felt, Garak managed a chuckle at that, and though he couldn't see Julian's face, Garak thought he heard him smile. "Doctor, I have an apology to make," he said. He didn't have to be mindful of his volume, considering their sleeping companions; he barely had the strength at the moment to speak at all.

"Save it." Julian's tone was not unkind, but he clearly wasn't going to stand for any more fatalism than was absolutely necessary.

"I'm serious, I--" Garak took a moment to marvel at how slender Julian's wrists were, how delicate and dextrous, as he drew both the cloth and Julian's hand away from his face. He looked Julian straight in the eye, trying to remember how many lifetimes ago it had been when they'd last seen one another on the station, face to face, their real selves. "I have to confess, I ... I gave your new uniform to your Changeling impersonator."

Julian stared at him for a moment, as though perhaps the sentence had come out wrong, despite Garak's best efforts. Then he clapped his free hand to his mouth in an attempt to muffle what threatened to be an outright laugh. His shoulders trembled for several seconds, before Julian took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, regaining his composure. "That is terrible customer service," he said, turning his wrist in Garak's grasp until they clasped hands with one another, both coming to rest atop Garak's chest.

"And do you want to know the worst part?" Garak added. "He's not even using it."

Biting his lower lip, Julian let his head fall forward, shaking in silent amusement. The very sight of it made Garak feel at least somewhat restored, as though even a single rock had been removed from his chest with this proof of his remaining strength. He could still make Julian Bashir laugh. Everything else could proceed from there.

At last, Julian squeezed Garak's hand. "If that is the worst sin you committed in my absence," he said, running his thumb over the knobby ridges of Garak's knuckles, "then I think we'll be all right."

With a soft sigh, Garak shut his eyes. "You must think we're all so terrible, none of us noticing you'd been replaced by an imposter."

"Not at all," Julian said, and from the tone of his voice, Garak could tell he meant it. "I've dealt with Changeling impersonators before, and they are very good at what they do. A person's affect, mannerisms, knowledge -- all replicated down to the most minute detail. At first when I'd realized I was in custody, I thought it was a simple abduction scenario. But now I know they deliberately grabbed me to situate a replacement, I'm wondering how long they'd been planning that very change, how much of my life was being watched while I had no idea."

How much indeed, Garak wondered. How many times even before Julian's abduction had Garak seen him, but not him ? Had the Changeling ever taken a test run of his upcoming identity, to see what he could pass even the eyes of those who knew him best? For that matter, how much had the Changeling watched Garak , to come to his devastating conclusions? Had he overheard Ziyal's occasional gentle teasing? Had his words been a stab in the dark at best? Or was it simply that obvious to anyone who cared to see?

"He still mostly kept his distance from me," Garak said. "Better not to chance it, I suppose. And it wasn't unreasonable to believe you'd be needed elsewhere more often than not. You are, after all, a very busy man."

Julian once more spread the damp cloth over Garak's forehead and took his pulse with one hand, as the other gripped Garak tight. "When was the last time I was too busy for you?" he asked with a rueful chuckle.

Depending on how one viewed the universe, Julian was either terribly lucky or terribly unlucky at that moment that Garak was altogether too enfeebled to rise from his cot, grab the front of the good doctor's tattered old uniform, and do something they would possibly both regret for no other reason than to prove a point. As it was, Garak merely smiled and shook his head. He would get Julian out of here. If he had to burn himself through, if he had to kill everyone else on this rock including himself to do it, he would see that Julian survived. If he could summon the energy for nothing else in his entire worthless life, he could for that. "These are strange days indeed, doctor."

"Well," Julian said after a moment's unreadable silence, "I should note I will be mildly insulted if you tell me he was so agreeable that you wound up preferring his company and conversation to mine."

"No," said Garak, feeling the weight of their joined hands rise and fall with his tidal breath. "Not especially."